This past fall, I had the opportunity to intern at Bellevue Literary Press and got to know some great folks during my time there, including their publishing assistant, Laura Hart. In this interview, Laura answers all of the tough questions about writing, workshopping, and publishing, why it’s imperative for a writer to take risks in their work, and shares several Star Trek characters she most identifies with (even though I asked her to choose only one).
You are not only a writer, but also someone who worked at a literary agency and now works at a press. How do you reconcile your writer/artist self with your publishing assistant self? Are they one and the same (or do they need to be)? Do you believe there is an art to publishing?
No. They don’t have to be one and the same. I’m constantly reevaluating my priorities. Right now, my career is my priority, and I don’t see myself ever being a full-time writer. Some of my friends are more dedicated to their craft than I am; they can’t go a day without sitting down at the computer, whereas I’m fine not writing for several months at a time. It’s cathartic and enjoyable, yes, but I’m more focused on helping other people tell their stories for the time being. The cool thing about having worked at both an agency and a press is that I’ve seen a somewhat comprehensive view of the entire system. I don’t claim to understand all the minutiae, but I have seen a few ways that a manuscript moves from the writer’s computer to the readers’ hands. And there are lots of hoops to jump through. I think the key to publishing is patience. I also think that those of us on the inside need to take a hard look at the way things work and make changes so that underrepresented authors have a chance.
You have the great privilege of working in an office surrounded by books. Some writers can pinpoint the book or story they read that made them want to become a writer. Was that the case for you? What was the first book you ever loved?
The very first book I ever loved was Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I ate that book up when I was little. This colorful little picture book was actually the first one I ever read, and it still sits on my shelves at home. I’m pretty sure I have multiple copies. I have a tote bag with the caterpillar on it. I plan on reading it to my kids one day.
I was immersed in stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar from the time I was born, so stories have always been a part of me. I started writing in the third grade. After a story competition for which we had to write about the prompt “Books as Treasure,” I started filling up notebooks, to the chagrin of my parents who had to take me to Target and Walmart and eventually TJ Maxx to get the pretty ones. I had pencils in my desk, and my friend Chris and I made up stories about their exciting lives in Pencil Town instead of paying attention in class. I wrote about my dolls. I wrote about the dogs I owned on a video game. I don’t recall a point in time when I consciously thought about the transition from reader-only to reader-writer. It just happened. So it probably won’t surprise you that I didn’t have an epiphany related to a publishing career, either. I wound up trying to major in chemistry at Auburn, and I was woefully unhappy. I always say to pursue your passion, not your interest. I was pursuing an interest. My first literature professor, Dr. Carcache, encouraged me to do the right thing and choose passion. I switched my major to English Literature and over that semester developed a loose plan for pursuing a career in publishing. I looked back on all my favorite books—Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, etc.—and decided I’d have a hell of a lot of fun being involved in the process of creating books like that.
I imagine that anyone who has participated in a writers’ workshop of any kind has experienced at least one moment where the feedback from their writing peers came across as insensitive and/or misguided (I know I did!). How does your experience participating in writing workshops (both inside and outside of an MFA program) factor into the way you read submissions now?
This question brought to my mind a few choice encounters in the MFA program that made my blood boil. Sometimes, readers tend to forget that another human being wrote the piece of writing up for discussion, and critiques can be insensitive, more personal than constructive. I try, when I read submissions, to focus on what the writer has done well, and when it’s time for revisions I do the same, so that the writer can do more of that good work and improve weaker sections.
On the flip side, I remember working at the Miller Writing Center in Auburn and being taught to separate the writer from the writing when working with a student. Imagine two scenarios: In one, the student has written something offensive; you question the writer’s intention and critique the writing itself, not the person. This avoids heated discussions, as well as truly upsetting someone who didn’t know any better. In another, a student is particularly anxious about their writing, and separating them from the piece itself prevents them from feeling like you’re criticizing them personally.
And, of course, unrelated to the question of feelings, my education in literature has refined my taste. I’ve learned about critical theory and different types of structure. I’ve learned the rules, and I’m learning how to break them in interesting ways. I’ve learned about style. When a writer takes risks and creates beautiful, lyrical prose, I’m drawn in.
For writers, the submission process can be an intimidating, nerve-wracking experience. In our conversations, we’ve discussed how pitching to literary agents and editors can feel like a “one shot” deal; everything feels as though it needs to be perfect the first time around or it’s over for the writer forever. What are some of your thoughts, advice, and/or words of wisdom about this process? How can a writer tell when they’re ready to submit to a literary magazine? How can they tell when they’re ready to submit a full manuscript to an agent or publisher?
DISCLAIMER: Your piece of writing will never please everyone. It will never be perfect. No one will submit and get accepted every time. Talented writers we all love and follow on Twitter have been rejected handfuls of times. You have to keep trying. Writing is about persisting. Keep your expectations tempered, keep your eyes up, and keep moving.
A strategy for submitting that I like is breaking the process into chunks. Make a list of the publications or imprints you want to submit to. Divide them up into rounds. Submit to your dream places first, wait a few months, and submit to the next tier if you don’t hear anything. If, after the second or third tier, you don’t receive any acceptance letters, maybe take the piece back to the drawing board and revise a little. Then go back out. If an editor tells you that Piece A isn’t for them but they’d love for you to submit something else, do it. Do it quickly. After interning at an agency, I can tell you that agents and editors only tell you to submit again if they mean it. It’s not a one-shot deal, per se, but don’t waste time second-guessing yourself. And remember, agents and editors are constantly chipping away at their inboxes, muddling through an endless deluge of submissions. If you submit something that’s crap one time, odds are that they won’t remember, unless the piece in question was outrageously offensive. Keep revising. Keep trying. Ask for comments after rejection letters.
If you were some kind of amazing book proposal magnet that was able to decide which ones were sent to you, what would those proposals look like? What is the “dream book” you’ve always wanted to see published? What is the book you’ve always wanted to write?
I’m a fairly open reader. I love literary fiction and sci-fi, as well as upmarket fiction, creative nonfiction, and philosophy (think The Second Sex, At the Existentialist Café). I love interconnected story collections, like Bryan Washington’s Lot. I love explorations and critiques of grammar like John McWhorter’s Talking Back, Talking Black. I love novels about characters who are faced with a strange, changing world and have to reevaluate the ways in which they move through it. Ideally, I’d receive proposals that were a mishmash of my favorite books—The Secret History, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Pastoralia, Fahrenheit 451, The Changeling, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Fifth Woman, The Collected Schizophrenias, Educated, and most recently, Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik. I have so many favorites. Scroll through my Goodreads ratings. You’ll find a treasure trove of references. In the meantime, I’ll be drafting my more specific Manuscript Wish List. As for the book I’ve always wanted to write… I’m currently writing it. It’ll probably be on shelves in 2050. Keep a look out.
We’ve spoken extensively about how important it is to make space for marginalized writers in this industry. Why is it so important to you personally?
We talked a while ago about how certain marginalized communities are put at a disadvantage from birth—those who don’t have the money for private schools, ACT tutors, and college tuition have a much harder time getting decent-paying jobs, much less decent-paying jobs in a field they’re passionate about, than those who do have the money. I had the privilege of growing up in a household with a stable income, graduating from Auburn without student debt, and going to Columbia for my MFA. I’m privileged to be married to a wonderful husband who supports me and enables me to pursue my dream career. I’ve been set up for success every step of the way. And instead of gloat in my accomplishments, I want to devote my career to diversifying the publishing industry, both in terms of people and stories. Not only because I have the privilege to do so but because I recognize that each person contributes something different (dreams, ideologies, cultures, religions, etc.). Our society is a lot more diverse than the publishing world makes it seem. Not only is it important for people of diverse backgrounds to be represented, but it is also important that we continually seek out the opinions and experiences of those who are different from us. We’ve become too much of an echo chamber with white writers dominating the scene. I want to shake that up. And this isn’t just about books, either. It’s about changing the system in such a way that we have a wider range of diverse editors and agents, too.
You will hate me for this BUT we have to talk about the fact that you are not only smart, talented, and literary but you’re also a BIG Star Trek fan! Have you really seen every episode from every series? What character do you most identify with and why? What have you learned from that character?
Agh. Ok. Yes. I’ve seen every episode from every series, with the exception of one or two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. I’ve seen a couple episodes (“The Drumhead” and “City on the Edge of Forever” in particular) multiple times. What is the power of story if not to take us into the future and show us the potential of humanity, both the good and the ways we overcome the bad?
I’ve been asked my favorite character (Spock) plenty of times, and my favorite captain (Picard/Sisko) even more, but never which character I identify with! This is a tough one. I see different aspects of myself in several characters, and maybe that’s the point of Star Trek. I see a little of myself in Deanna Troi, who loves chocolate and is in-tune with everyone’s emotions. I can be stubborn like Kira Nerys and sarcastic like Bones. I love my family like Captain Sisko. I’ve felt out of my element before but slowly adapted and tried to make a name for myself like Ezri Dax. I wish I had more of Spock’s logic, but oh well. What I’ve learned from all these characters is that there’s no one way to be a hero; individuality is a wonderful thing, and when we put aside our differences and work together, we can create as much of a utopia as possible.
Laura Hart is a publishing assistant at Bellevue Literary Press. She earned a BA from Auburn University and an MFA from Columbia University. She previously worked at Writers House and the Columbia Journal.